Opportunities to mix it up with the phenomena you’re studying is one of the attractions of being an atmospheric scientist. The mathematics and physics are as challenging as those of rocket science.
Studying scary storms such as tornadoes offers another perk: people are willing to buy tickets to watch your work; such as in the IMAX film “Tornado Alley.”
It’s now showing at two Smithsonian Museums: in the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater in the National Museum of Natural History on the Mall and at the Airbus IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center just south of Dulles Airport. The 42-minute movie can also be seen at science centers and museums across the U.S. and in several other countries.
While the main focus of the IMAX movie is the violently rotating whirlwinds that give the Great Plains their “Tornado Alley” nickname, the secondary story line is the work of VORTEX 2 scientists who spent May and June 2009 and 2010 chasing tornadoes across the Plains trying to capture huge amounts of data.
Trailer for Tornado Alley
The tornadoes seen in the movie are impressive and give you some sense of what it’s like to be near or even in a large twister. These scenes also clearly show that winds around a tornado outside the visible funnel can be extremely strong. If you are ever tempted to stand your ground as a tornado approaches taking video that will make you a YouTube sensation, DONT. Head for shelter long before the funnel arrives.
As seen in “Tornado Alley,” these whirlwinds are not like the one a couple sees through the windshield of their vehicle as a cow flies by in the 1996 movie “Twister.” Winds outside the funnel of a tornado strong enough to lift a cow would have violently rolled the vehicle long before the cow flew past.
Anyone who’s seen photos or video of tornado damage knows how devastating they can be. “Tornado Alley” has brief views of tornado damage but with no images of mangled bodies or victims being dug out of wreckage. The movie is suitable for children.
Unfortunately, tornado researchers often work under cloudy skies and many scenes in Tornado Alley will seem dark to move goers who are used to ordinary films with perfect lighting, including IMAX films showing at Smithsonian museums such as “Legends of Flight” where filming could wait for perfect light.
Next to Sean Casey, the cameraman, inventor and builder of the Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV), and his crew, the movie’s main characters are tornado scientists Joshua Wurman and Karen Kosiba from the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR) based in Boulder, Colo., and Don Burgess, a tornado-chasing pioneer from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Casey and his TIV have worked with Wurman and other scientists from the CSWR but Casey and the TIV were not part of VORTEX 2, Wurman says.
The IMAX format doesn’t lend itself to explanations of tornado science or exactly what the scientists are looking for. But it does give a good sense of how difficult collecting tornado data can be, starting with getting the researchers, and the TIV, in the right location to capture data on tornadoes.
As narrator Bill Paxton, a leading character in “Twister” and a real-life severe weather aficionado, says early in the film: “Hunting a tornado can feel like swimming with a shark in dark waters. You know it’s there. You just can’t find it.’’
After eight years of trying to drive the current TIV and its predecessor into a tornado Casey finally succeeded on June 5, 2009 in Goshen County, Wyo., to capture the scene that ends the movie. This also happens to be the tornado that was a highlight of the two years of VORTEX 2 field work with the researchers recording the most data ever on a tornado’s complete life cycle.
Wurman says: “the TIV has occasionally obtained useful data” and “we are submitting an analysis of combined DOW-TIV data for formal publication” in a refereed scientific journal. “The data has allowed us to study the low level structure of the Goshen tornado and evaluate limitations of the EF (tornado rating) scale.”